Ryle offers a regress argument for the impossibility of reducing knowing how to knowing that. Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson in Knowing How (PDF) suggest a way to block the regress. I think Ryle anticipated their reply, and has something interesting to say about it. I’m not sure whether Ryle’s response works, but it is I think a response. (What I’m going to say is similar to what Alva Noe says in his Against Intellectualism (PDF), but I hope different enough to be worth saying.)
Here is Ryle’s original formulation of the regress argument.
The crucial objection to the intellectualist legend is this. The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle.
Jason and Tim summarise Ryle’s position as follows.
Premise 1: If one Fs, one employs knowledge-how to F.
Premise 2: If one employs knowledge that p, one contemplates the proposition that p.
They then interpret Ryle as arguing that these premises plus an assumption that knowing how to do something is knowledge that as leading to a regress, where the agent has to contemplate infinitely many propositions to do anything.
Their response is two-fold. First, they argue that premise 1 is only plausible if we restrict attention to actions done intentionally. “If Hannah wins a fair lottery, she still does not know how to win the lottery, since it was by sheer chance that she did so.” They then argue that premise 2 is not plausible if we read it as saying that one has to intentionally contemplate the proposition that p. This way the regress is blocked.
They are clearly right that premise 1 is too strong as it stands. And there is little textual evidence that Ryle intended anything that strong. But the particular weakening that Jason and Tim suggest is not the only plausible weakening. Indeed, it is not obviously the weakening that Ryle has in mind.
To see what other options, let us make up a new word. Say that an action is done agentively iff it is evaluable using, as Ryle puts it on page 25, concepts from “that family of concepts ordinarily summarised ‘intelligence’”. These include ‘clever’, ‘sensible’, ‘prudent’, ‘witty’, ‘judicious’, ‘silly’, ‘careless’, ‘rash’, ‘uninventive’, ‘slow’ and many more. (You might suspect that an action is agentive iff it is intentional, but I doubt it. At times only a dull person would pause to act intentionally rather than habitually.) Now I think you can make a case for each of the following premises.
Premise 1a: If one Fs agentively, one employs knowledge-how to F.
Premise 2a: If one employs knowledge that p, one contemplates the proposition that p, and this act of contemplation is agentive.
There is some textual evidence that Ryle intended Premise 2a. Indeed, the following passage not only supports that interpretation but supports the premise.
But what makes him consider the one maxim which is appropriate rather than any of the thousands that are not? Why does the hero not find himself calling to mind a cooking-recipe, or a rule of Formal Logic? Perhaps he does, but then his intellectual process is silly and not sensible. Intelligently reflecting how to act is, among other things, considering what is pertinent and disregarding what is inappropriate. (31)
Is Premise 1a true? I don’t think the examples that Jason and Tim raise tell against it. But while it seems plausible, it is far from clear how to argue for it. That’s why I don’t want to endorse Ryle’s regress argument.
More generally, there is a worry to Jason and Tim’s strategy here. Premise 1 is too strong as it stands, so it must be weakened. For Ryle’s purposes, we have to strengthen Premise 2 in a way so that together with Premise 1 (as modified) it generates a regress. Now Jason and Tim show quite convincingly, I think, that weakening Premise 1 so it only applies to intentional actions will be no good. But there may be other weakenings that work. I’ve suggested one, and I don’t know of any argument that there are no others that could work. So the spectre of the Rylean regress still hangs over any attempt to rehabilitate intellectualism.
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized